The New Monasticism

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By the thirteenth century, the West’s idealistic wars against a fearsome Islamic threat had failed ignobly; its stagnating economy had cast a pall of depression across the once prosperous and thriving land; its national and political leaders reveled in pomp, circumstance, and internecine rivalry while their subjects cowered in poverty, fear, and injustice; and the church’s spiritual authority was marred by the flaming vices of perversity, carnality, and avarice. No wonder, then, that even the most pious men tended to press into brash, adventurous superstition or retreat into timid, monkish isolation.

Sound familiar? It should. High medievalism, for all its obvious differences, is so like our present circumstances that historian Margaret Tuchman’s famous description, “A Distant Mirror,” may be more apt than ever. Indeed, the rise of a “New Monastic Movement” among young, urban, evangelical hipsters in recent days is a reminder to us that we are not so different from our barely remembered ancestors as we might suppose. But as understandable as this impulse to run for cover in this time of uncertainty, distrust, and crumbling cultural stability might be, it is hardly a Scriptural response.

G.K. Chesterton once asserted that our world is simultaneously an ogre’s castle that must be stormed and a cottage where one might return after a long day’s labor. Life in this poor fallen world, he said, is both a battle and a refuge; it is at the same time a dangerous enterprise and a restful repose. In other words, he recognized that the world we live in, work in, and serve in is fraught with paradox—which of course, is a supremely biblical idea.

We know, for instance, that the world is only a temporary dwelling place. It is “passing away” (1 John 2:17), and we are here but for a little while as aliens and sojourners (Acts 7:6). Because we are a part “of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19), our true “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). Our affections are naturally “set … on things that are above” (Col. 3:2).

In addition, the world is filled with dangers, toils, and snares (Jer. 18:22). In tandem with the flesh and the devil, it makes war on the saints (John 15:18). “All that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father” (1 John 2:16). The world cannot receive the Spirit of Truth because “the cares of the world choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matt. 8:22).

Thankfully, Christ overcame the world (John 16:33) and chose us “out of the world” (15:19). Thus, we are not to be “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2), but neither are we to “love the world” (1 John 2:15) because Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Though we once walked “following the course of this world” (Eph. 2:2), now we are to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” (James 1:27). Indeed, “friendship with the world is enmity with God” so that whoever is a friend of the world is the enemy of God (4:4). Thus, warnings against worldliness, carnal-mindedness, and earthly attachments dominate biblical ethics.

But then, that is the problem, isn’t it? We must continue to live in the world. We must be “in” it but not be “of” it. And that is no easy feat. As John Calvin wrote, “Nothing is more difficult than to forsake all carnal thoughts, to subdue and renounce our false appetites, and to devote ourselves to God and our brethren, and to live the life of angels in a world of corruption.”

To make matters even more complex, we not only have to live in this fallen world, but we have to work in it (1 Thess. 4:11), serve in it (Luke 22:26), and minister in it (2 Tim. 4:5). We have been appointed ambassadors to it (2 Cor. 5:20), priests for it (1 Peter 2:9), and witnesses in it (Matt. 24:14). We even have to go to the uttermost parts of it (Acts 1:8), offering “a good confession” of the eternal life to which we were called (1 Tim. 6:12).

The reason for this seemingly contradictory state of affairs—enmity with the world on the one hand, responsibility to it on the other—is simply that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Though the world is “in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) and knows neither God nor the children of God (1 Cor. 1:21), God is in Christ “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 8:12). He is the “Savior of the world” (4:42). He is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Indeed, He was made “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Through Christ, “all things are being reconciled” (Col. 1:20), so that finally “the kingdom of the world [shall] become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15).

A genuinely integrated Christian view regarding life and work must be cognizant of both perspectives regarding the world—and treat them with equal weight. It must be engaged in the world. It must be unengaged in worldliness. It must somehow correlate spiritual concerns with temporal concerns. It must coalesce heavenly hope and landed life. It must coordinate heartfelt faith and down-to-earth practice.

The only way we can do that is to bring our faith right into the thick of our mess of a world. As appealing as a retreat into some monastic sanctuary might seem to us during these wearying days in which we live, it is hardly a biblical alternative. And while there are innumerable commendable aspects of the “New Monastic Movement”—including concern for justice issues, care for the poor, sacrificial stewardship, and covenant community—its high ideals are best pursued as we engage the world, as we “go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that [he has] commanded [us]” (Matt. 28:19–20).

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